Making the Helsinki Declaration coherent?

The Helsinki Declaration is under revision. One suggested change concerns a paragraph about biobank and register-based research, which states:

  • “For medical research using identifiable human material or data, physicians must normally seek consent for the collection, analysis, storage and/or reuse.”

The paragraph currently continues with the following exceptions:

  • “There may be situations where consent would be impossible or impractical to obtain for such research or would pose a threat to the validity of the research. In such situations the research may be done only after consideration and approval of a research ethics committee.” (My emphasis.)

The proposed revision is to delete the exception I emphasized. – Why? I speculate that the deletion is proposed to avoid perceived conflict with an earlier paragraph, stating that

  • “the well-being of the individual research participant must take precedence over all other interests.”

In particular, the interests of research must not take precedence over the interests of the participant. But it might appear as if “…or would pose a threat to the validity of the research” does just that. The phrase seems to emphasize the interests of research.

In the latest issue of Science, CRB researchers Joanna Forsberg and Yusuke Inoue question the proposal to delete the exception. In a letter, “Beware Side Effects of Research Ethics Revision,” they point out that in biobank and register-based research, risks of participation are only minimal.

Human beings are “participants” in a markedly different sense when the research is done on their data or samples, rather than on themselves or their bodies.

The authors argue that “when the risks are minimal, it is not clear that the individual’s interests in having a say should automatically outweigh the good that can result from robust research.”

I think their views should be taken seriously. There is a risk that the effort to achieve verbal consistency neglects actual distinctions between forms of medical research. If the paragraphs that seem to conflict concern markedly different forms of research and markedly different forms of participation with markedly different risks – then an important exception might be sacrificed for the sake of an only apparent conflict.

Pär Segerdahl

We participate in debates - the Ethics Blog

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